Friday, July 12, 2013

Memphis Minnie – Me and My Chaffeur

Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith were the stars of the early days of blues recordings, but as their style faded and the more male-dominated country blues came into vogue, few women worked in this genre. Memphis Minnie was one of the best.

This 2-CD collection (much more extensive than the one Ipreviously reviewed) is presented in chronological order, starting with her work with husband Kansas Joe McCoy. “When the Levee Breaks” (with Joe singing) was, of course, revised and made famous by Led Zeppelin, but Minnie’s vocal numbers are the highlights here. One of best known numbers is, rightfully, “Bumble Bee” – an excellent example of acoustic, country blues – but most of her numbers recorded in the 30’s are just as good.

I’m not a big fan of the novelty numbers, though, like “What’s the Matter With the Mill” or “Frankie Jean (That Trottin’ Fool)”, despite the instrumental work. But when she performs the true blues, such as “Crazy Cryin’ Blues” or “Where is My Good Man”, or the instrumentals “Pickin’ the Blues”, with its cool slide work, and “Let’s Go to Town”, there are few better!

Husband Joe gets a few vocals here and while he has a fine voice, it is not nearly as distinctive and powerful as Minnie’s. The lady does some recording on her own, as well, which shows her prowess on the guitar – no, not a complete virtuoso, but rollickin’ and rhythmic, with cool finger-picking licks (“Chickasaw Train Blues” is especially good). Eventually, sidemen were added – piano, bass, second guitar and even drums on a few numbers (and clarinet on a couple, which I don’t really think works as well with her style, but not bad), moving her sound into more of an “urban” tone, but not diminishing her strengths in the least!

Although most of her songs are standard male-female tunes, she dedicates two tunes to boxer Joe Louis – “He’s in the Ring” and Joe Louis Strut” – interesting choice of current events for the topic of blue songs! Funnily, a number than Minnie simply plays guitar on, “New Orleans Stop Time” is an ode to tap-dancing, which two male characters apparently challenging each to do more difficult steps. Of course, this is an audio recording, so whether anyone was actually dancing is anyone’s guess!

But when Minnie comes back in with “Bad Luck Woman”, we’re back to the true blues! “Caught Me Wrong Again” could be a Muddy Waters tune, and she gets downright salacious with “Black Cat Blues” (“everybody wants to buy my kitty” – she did earn her living as a prostitute at times) and “If You See My Rooster”.

She later divorced McCoy and married Little Son Joe Lawlers (who also played guitar) and recorded a large body of work with him, including her tribute “Ma Rainey”, “In My Girlish Days”, “Me and My Chaffeur Blues” and much more – all pretty darn stellar.

This set comes with a nice, full-color booklet with some great pics and an overview of Minnie’s life, along with a list of the personnel on all of the songs. A great comp!